Toledo’s Cathedral: See It Even if You’re Cathedraled-Out

Toledo’s most popular attraction and strongest tour-group magnet is Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo (Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo).

That’s a mouthful for sure, but given its size, there’s no chance of confusing it with any other church in town, so it’s usually just called “The Cathedral.”

The streets around the cathedral are narrow and buildings are clustered close, so it’s difficult to appreciate just how big the place is.

There are a couple of ways to get a feeling for its scale. The first way is to take the fun and cheap tourist-train tour from Plaza de Zocodover which stops for a panoramic view of Toledo on the ridge on the opposite side of the Tagus River.

The second, is to just walk in the main entrance. And it’s a guarantee your eyes will be drawn up toward the heavens, and the first word out of your mouth will be Wow! The main hall is 400 feet long, 200 feet wide, and 150 high – in a word: enormous.

Imagine it’s the 16th Century, and you’re a peasant farmer who has walked from his tiny, rustic home in the countryside to attend Sunday mass. The contrast between your house and this lavish building couldn’t be more extreme, and all you feel is awe; which is exactly what the clergy had in mind. This is undoubtedly the House of God, and you disrespect it at your peril.

It took 250 years (1226-1493) to build this massive cathedral. From the exterior it appears Gothic. But each successive cardinal wanted to leave his mark on the church, so the interior is a mix of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical.

The elaborate interior has the finest wrought-iron work, exquisite stone and wood carvings, and vibrant, 500 year-old stained glass windows. The finest craftsmen and stone masons worked their magic over the years, and obviously, no expense was spared.

The high altar, choir, chapter house, and all the chapels tell Biblical stories and are replete with symbolism, which would take a Christian theologian to fully understand all the messages and nuances. But the amazing architecture and elegant artwork can be appreciated on its own, and the combined effect is astounding.

The High Altar has real gold on carved wood with scenes depicting the life of Christ. Above the altar, the view up to the intricately detailed vaulted ceiling is stunning.

Facing the High Altar, the choir has some of the finest wood carving imaginable, with each panel illustrating the town-by-town Christian Reconquest expelling the Muslims.

The Transparente is a unique feature of this cathedral. In the 1700s a hole was cut in the ceiling to let in more light, as well as a reminder that God is light.

This Heavenly light falls on a Baroque masterpiece carved from Italian marble.

The Treasury is dominated by a luminous, 10-foot-high, 430-pound monstrance, which is a tower designed to hold the Holy Communion wafer (the Host). This 400 pounds of gold-plated silver and 35 pounds of solid gold is paraded through the streets during the Festival of Corpus Christi.

With all its world-famous artwork, the Sacristy is like a branch office of the Prado. There are 19 El Grecos, and masterpieces by Goya, Titian, Velázquez, Carravaggio, and Bellini on display. The most famous work in the Sacristy is El Greco’s The Spoliation (The disrobing of Christ).

In Europe, and especially in Spain, it’s easy to get “cathredraled-out,” but luckily, we saw the Toledo cathedral early in our trip and we were fresh. It has an astounding variety of religious art and the ornate interior is truly a marvel. On this trip, we also saw terrific cathedrals in Segovia, Salamanca, and Burgos. Each had its own character and it’s hard to pick a favorite, but Toledo was a great introduction and its Gothic cathedral is certainly one of the highlights in Spain.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

37 thoughts

  1. It’s a wonderful cathedral, and I had a good laugh at your phrase cathedraled-out. Over the years, I’ve been cathedraled-out, pagodaed-out, templed-out and more.

    1. Our kids, now in their 40ies, got “parked out” when we visited all the national parks we could find when they were in their teens.

      1. Thanks for the comment Tom and for dropping by the blog. I guess moderation in all things is best. I’m sure that all of us, at one time or another, has been tempted to squeeze in everything we can. I know that on our first trip to Europe we had a Eurail Pass for unlimited travel for a month. We returned home absolutely exhausted. Since then our motto is quality over quantity. ~James

  2. Professional tours used to always feature cathedrals [now they seem to feature wineries] and one quickly became “cathedraled-out,” but your post certainly makes me want to see this one.

    1. We’ve visited lots of beautiful cathedrals, but this one is one of the largest, most ornate that we’ve seen. I suspect they were spending some of the gold and silver that Columbus and his gang was pillaging from the Mesoamericans. ~James

    1. Thanks Laura. If you consider the stonework alone, it’s easy to understand why these huge cathedrals take so long to build. Every single piece of stone was quarried, transported, carved, and put in place by hand. And then there’s the artwork and sculpture. ~James

  3. Loved the architecture of the cathedral. Thanks for stopping by on my blog and stay connected .

    1. Medieval architects made a few technological advances that made these incredibly tall churches possible, and I’m sure the buildings seemed magical at the time. ~James

  4. Another one I will send on to my sister for her upcoming trip. Even if/when I get bored with church histories or decoration or symbolism, I never tire of the sheer magnitude of some of them. Imagining their construction centuries ago is what always fascinates me most in the end.

    1. Lexie, years ago I read (as you probably did as well) Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth,” which gave me a good feel for some of the difficulties involved in building cathedrals in the Middle Ages. It’s no wonder they took so long to complete. ~James

  5. Thatnks to your camera work and writing, I am getting nostalgic for Europe and its history, art and architecture. I know we will return one of these days. – Mike

    1. Mike, Toledo has history, art, and architecture in a wonderfully compact package. If you haven’t been, it’s a great stop. It’s good to hear from you, and I hope all is well with you and Florence. ~James

  6. I never tire of visiting cathedrals as they are all unique. Malta had so many, I believe there are 365 altogether on the two relatively small islands. No, I didn’t visit all of them! Even I have my limits. I didn’t get to this one in Toledo as there was quite a line-up and we were on limited time. Next time for sure. We did visit the church with the El Greco painting The Burial of the Count of Orgaz which was quite amazing. One could say, so many churches, so little time!!

    1. Darlene, we went to see the Burial of the Count as well, and after we paid our €5 and saw the painting, we discovered that the church was closed. When I asked the attendant why I had just spent a fiver to see one painting, all I got was a shrug. Hopefully, this was only a temporary closure. It’s a nice painting, but I’m not sure it’s that nice. But, the art in the Sacristy of the Cathedral is a fantastic bargain. See it if you can. ~James

  7. I’ve heard people say they’re “churched” or “cathedraled” out but, almost always, the church/cathedral is on our list of must sees as the repository for even the smallest of village’s best architecture and art. I loved your comparison of the 16th century peasant farmer walking into the magnificent cathedral and comparing it to his humble hut. It’s easy to imagine his jaw-dropping in awe at the vast spaces, glittering gold and play of light. And, now that you’ve mentioned this cathedral, you can bet it will be at the top of our list when we make it to Toledo! Anita

    1. Anita, given the size of the place, even if you didn’t want to see it, you can’t miss it. In addition to Toledo, we visited cathedrals in Segovia, Salamanca, and Burgos. I don’t know if it was just me paying more attention, but all these cathedrals had a level of ornamentation and decoration that was truly astounding. I didn’t read this anywhere, but I wonder if some of the money for these lavish buildings came from the hordes of gold and silver brought back from the Americas? That, and the fact that Spanish Catholics at that time didn’t mind paying for their salvation. ~James

  8. Wow, indeed! Those colors are so bright and the details are amazing. Beautiful and intricate – where do I look first? It sure took a long time to build it, but seeing your wonderful photographs makes me understand why!

    1. Thanks Liesbet. I suspect that the time it took to build is a function of two things: first, all the construction and the incredibly detailed sculpture and artwork were done by hand, and the second was probably financial. This cathedral had to have cost a fortune, so it was probably built as funds became available.~James

      1. That certainly makes sense. I have friends and family now who extend/renovate their homes as funds become available… 🙂 I hope the cathedral was already being used while the work was in progress.

  9. Wow is right! I definitely am one to be cathedraled out in a hurry. Happy to have your recommendation and my goodness the amount of gold is astounding. How do you suppose they parade it around? It reminds me of a church we saw in Cusco with a similar monstrosity. There too they spoke of it being brought on for festivals.

    1. Sue, we saw large, impressive, extravagant cathedrals in every city we visited except Madrid. We knew about being “cathedraled-out” and tried to time our cathedral visits so they were as spread out as possible. But ultimately, I guess it’s like eating rich food meal after meal and then discovering that it doesn’t taste as special. But a later review of photos helps to appreciate how wonderful the art and architecture really is. ~James

  10. My partner cycled through Toledo but he missed this gem. Well, he seldom goes into cathedrals on his own. It’s me that plots this one.

  11. It sure took a long time to build it, but seeing your wonderful photographs makes me understand why! !

    1. Thanks for the comment Natalie and for dropping by the blog. This cathedral is huge, and keep in mind that every piece of stone was cut by hand. So it’s no surprise that it took so long to build. Also, I suspect that the expense of building must have been a issue. ~James

  12. Thanks so much for this post. I don’t know if we’ll ever make it to Spain, but after seeing these photos, I know why we should make it a point to go. The tiled and vaulted ceiling is something I’ve never seen anywhere else, although there could be many of these in Europe. We just haven’t seen them. Lovely. And all that Baroqueness. Oh, my. This is quite the cathedral!

    1. Rusha, as you say, this vaulted ceiling is unique and I truly fell in love with it. I must have taken 25 photos of the ceiling alone. It just made such a great composition element. And BTW, you and Bert really should visit Spain. It has such a great variety of sights and such a complex and interesting history, and it really is different than most of the rest of Europe. ~James

  13. I have friends and family now who extend/renovate their homes as funds become available… 🙂 I hope the cathedral was already being used while the work was in progress. !

    1. Thanks for the comment Kenneth and for dropping by the blog. I’m sure that these good Catholics found a way to hold services as normal. And probably, it was a good visual reminder and opportunity for the faithful to fill the offering basket when it was passed. ~James

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